It Could Have Worked

by Niels Colesky

When looking at aerial photographs of more than nine hundred bodies lying dead in the jungle, you have to feel disturbed. A walk along the elevated wooden walkways, with bodies either side of you, would leave you with a feeling that far transcends tragedy.

It matters not when you first “discover” Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, chances are your first thoughts are: “What sort of evil person is responsible for this?”

Surely the only thing that could have caused the snuffing out of nine hundred lives in the jungles of Guyana would be undiluted evil. We demand this of the universe. We can’t have mediocre people doing extreme things, be they good or be they bad. And we would need the cause of the Jonestown tragedy, this complete waste of human life and potential, to be pure evil.

And the people – the relatives of their loved ones who died, and the mere spectators of the event – had someone to pin the “Pure Evil” badge onto. Reverend Jim Jones was our scapegoat and probably forever will be. We can fill our hearts with hate for Jim Jones and we can dismiss his followers as flaky cultists. This is the easy path to follow. If we wish to follow this path, we must be sure to look straight ahead and focus only on the dead bodies, their leader at the top of the path choosing the coward’s way out with a bullet to the head. If we want to choose the easy way, the “laying of blame on only one reason” way, we must never ever look to the left or the right or indeed behind us. We must never ask why.

People willingly went to the jungle. They truly believed that Jim Jones could deliver a better life. Many man hours were spent building this community. One can only believe that somewhere in the beginning of it all, there was faith and there was hope. Why else would nearly one thousand people leave everything to go to the jungle? We have watched enough episodes of Survivor to know that your average city dweller does not have the means to make it in the wilderness. Yet aeroplane after aeroplane flew with members of Peoples Temple to Guyana to start life a-new. Were they drugged? Were they beaten until they got onto the aeroplanes? There were enough stories of abuse at the time for members of the Temple to know that Jim Jones was evil and demented. Weren’t there? But still, people climbed onto aeroplanes, to fly into the unknown.

I find it hard to believe that this man was all evil, and these people were all fools for following.

Jesus, it is said, told his disciples that he would make them fishers of men. Jim Jones undoubtedly was blessed with this talent. It is said that message of Peoples Temple reached approximately 20,000 heads.

If we look at old news and archive footage of both Peoples Temple and Jonestown, we see smiling faces. Lots of them. We see people who, at first anyway, were there by choice. There can be little doubt that by the morning of November 18, things in Jonestown were quite unbearable. Things must have been as bad as declared by Deborah Layton in her affidavit. In his article The Voice, Vern Gosney, tells us he was 119 pounds when he left Jonestown. The photographs we see of full plates of food? Publicity shots? Were they not, Vern Gosney would never have risked everything by passing the note to NBC newsman Don Harris.

In the end, Jonestown and Peoples Temple was a failure. A dismal failure that took too many lives with it. And yet, I have this nagging feeling that it could have worked. I have this unshakable feeling that it should have worked. Not only should Peoples Temple been a success, but it should have been a model for many more similar projects and communes.

From the early days of the Temple to the last day of Jonestown, what passed for a mission statement was printed on Peoples Temple letterhead. The mission statement is taken from Matthew 25, verses 35 to 40. If we believe mission statements, then we can believe that the people of Peoples Temple were committing to looking after those that could not look after themselves, be they hungry, unclothed, or sick. Peoples Temple was an organisation intent on looking after its old people; for getting the strayed out of trouble from the law; for helping people navigate the government bureaucracies of social services and welfare. Socialism in its purist, most unselfish way. Humanity does not get better than that.

The world right now is a confusing and scary place. The figures for poverty, starvation and hunger around the world today are staggering. It is estimated that approximately 820 million people are undernourished at the moment. While over the last ten years, the chronically homeless figures are on the decline, housing remains a major problem world wide. The aged are getting poorer and poorer.

We can speculate for the next 300 years why Jonestown failed, and some might even have what they consider definitive answers. But, for me, what I believe the most is that the world desperately needs for Jonestown-type settlements to exist and to work. How awesome would it be if there were organisations that would be prepared to pick those of us up that just don’t fit in. Offer us a feeling of community. Even better than that, a feeling of being part of a family.

Thirty years later, I believe that was what Peoples Temple was meant to be about.

And yet, it went wrong. We come up with ten thousand different reasons why it all went south. We blame drugs; we blame sex; we blame the Concerned Relatives, the CIA, the defectors. Mostly we blame Jim Jones.

The root cause for it all going wrong is simple. The whole problem is man and his ego. History is littered with men who thought they were bigger than the dream. For all his charm, magnetism and intelligence, Jim Jones was no different.

He grabbed the power that flowed so naturally from within and would never consider relinquishing it. And when he was no longer to stay in control, he took his entire tribe with him.

The Jonestown story could have been so much more different had someone strong enough just said “Stop.” By the time Christine Miller stood up and voiced her objections, it was too late. People were too tired and too hungry. And so went the dream of creating a little piece of paradise here on earth.

I sit here in my office in Cape Town, South Africa and in my mind’s eye I see the bodies. I hear the babies crying. I see the dead bodies shot up on the tarmac at Port Kaituma. I know it didn’t work and I can’t think of any action that would have stopped Jim Jones getting that far out of control. And yet the same words go through my mind over and over again.

It coulda worked. It shoulda worked.

(Niels Colesky is from Cape Town in South Africa. He can be reached here.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 17th, 2014.
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